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He hugged his wife, his parents and his children, then began the journey north to the United States, crossing through Laredo, Texas. It would be the third time since Tecpile's marriage to Veronica Montalvo that he left his country to work on a Wisconsin dairy farm. The trip, more than 2, miles, is not uncommon among the families in and around Astacinga. The area has close to 7, people. Money sent from those working in the U. Tecpile left five years ago and remains in Wisconsin. He works six days a week, about 10 hours a day at Rosenholm Dairy in Buffalo County. After work, he prepares dinner, takes a shower and, most evenings, calls home.

Tecpile and Montalvo want to finish a home they are building in Astacinga — get the bathroom and kitchen done, install a tile floor, paint the walls. They hope to start their own business someday. That means for now, Megan will continue to know her father only through the nightly calls and by browsing photos on her mother's cellphone. Reliable s on immigrants working in the dairy industry are hard to come by. Talk to workers in Wisconsin, and they express little doubt immigrants for a larger portion of the dairy industry workforce today.

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And they don't just work on the biggest farms, but also on operations that grew their herd beyond what a family can handle. With unemployment low, many farmers fill openings by passing word to Mexican laborers already on-site, and then accepting the new workers who show up without asking too many questions.

The immigrants may have to work nights, milk hundreds of cows every shift, toil in the wind and snow. The job can be dangerous; not everyone makes it back to their family. Immigrants say the jobs are a ladder to a better life; farmers say the immigrants are the only means of affordable labor.

So despite the rancor that surrounds national immigration policy, the workers keep coming and the farms keep hiring. Hiring immigrants caught on among Wisconsin dairy farms in the late s and early s, according to University of Wisconsin research. Beginning inthe state increased its annual milk production every year, and beginning init annually set records — streaks that continue to this day. Inthen-Gov. Scott Walker initiated an incentive program urging farmers to produce even more, in the belief that foreign markets could absorb the increase.

This fall, U. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue essentially told family dairy farmers in Wisconsin: Get big or get out.

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He started hiring them back in when he was having trouble finding local workers. He recalls hiring a retired state trooper. The dairy farmer kept him on, but moved him to a new job. Rosenow made his first immigrant hire after seeing an ad from a Dallas recruiting company. It sent him a worker named Manuel, who knocked out 10 hours a day for 54 days straight.

When Manuel left, Rosenow hired two more Mexican workers. Over time, other farmers asked him for help hiring immigrants. In the past 10 to 15 years, he has likely had about job candidates. Only two were American-born and neither was willing to do what was necessary, he says. Omar Guerrero says his experiences are similar. One lasted through just an hour of training.

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There were barely any Latinos then. Guerrero, now a citizen and settled with his family in the U. At Drake Dairy, he learned more about the operation, took on new responsibilities and moved into management. Now he has a stake in the farm. He is proud to have helped push the farm from cows to 2, He says many of the workers are undocumented and only the ones who work outside with tractors are American-born.

But some farms struggle to fill holes. But for farms barely breaking even or losing money, increasing the payroll is prohibitive. Hans Breitenmoser started to hire immigrant workers at his Merrill dairy farm 15 to 20 years ago. Today, the farm has cows. Nine of the 12 hired workers are Latinos. Breitenmoser said most dairy farmers are used to the idea of workers not being born in the U. His parents, after all, came from Switzerland. He acknowledges there's little vetting; hiring the first person through the door is better than being selective and ending up with no person at all.

A nearby farmer vouched for immigrant workers. The law degree didn't lead to a job, and the work — low wage jobs for a cleaning company, airplane parts factory and car wash in North Carolina — didn't allow her to save. Once across, they made their way to Wisconsin, where Guadalupe's partner worked. During their first days at the farm, the sisters cleaned the parlor in addition to milking cows.

With time, the milk quality went up because the sisters were vigilant about cleanliness and sanitation. By then, the owners had undergone a change of heart. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationwide, that meant 6, injuries just on those larger farms. From throughthe U. Occupational Safety and Health Administration increased inspections of dairy farms with more than 10 employees or a temporary labor camp. At least 51 Wisconsin dairy farms were found in violation of some safety regulations during this period, according to the OSHA data. Mexican immigrants often work the most wearing jobs.

A University of Wisconsin study found that immigrants tended to be relegated to routine, lower-paid tasks such as milkers or pushers, who clean manure in the barns and bring the cows to the milking parlors. Further, dairy workers averaged 57 hours of work a week and fewer than five days off each month.

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In New York state, a survey of 88 immigrant dairy farmworkers, the vast majority working on farms with more than cows, concluded that about half of the workers felt rushed on the job, and breaks could be as short as five minutes in a hour workday. John Peck, executive director of the Madison-based advocacy group Family Farm Defenders, says he would like Wisconsin to be a leader in socially responsible milk production, which would take into paying workers better wages and paying farmers better prices, instead of measuring only the quality of the product.

So how can they afford to pay workers, if they are losing their farms? Peck says consumers may fail to connect inexpensive milk at the store with inadequate pay for farmers, and with low-wage immigrant labor. Salvador Salas worked on several farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota. But there also was a Wisconsin farm where he worked and hour split workdays without a single day off, even for Thanksgiving or Christmas, for four years. He says the farm owner rarely paid him for more than 10 hours a day, no matter how long he worked cleaning barns, herding cows, feeding calves, pushing feed, milking.

The toughest times for Salas were the winters when it was freezing outside and he had to move tires off tarps covering mounds of feed. He hurt his back working on the farm, he says, and told his boss about the accident — but never asked to see a doctor. He feared the farmer might think he was lying and wouldn't help him. Salas returned to Mexico early this year after more than six years on U. He was worn out and wanted to see his family. Today, he lives in Astacinga in a home he built by adding on to his father's home, using savings from the dairy work.

A chiropractor helped alleviate his back pain.

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Salas put big windows in his living room and bedroom. He likes watching the sun rise from behind the mountains, and the stars blanket the valley. But her sister had never been scared of work. At 53, undocumented and living with her two younger children in a trailer that needed repairs, Antonia kept working at Clarks Mills Dairy Farm in Reedsville. The last time the sisters talked on the phone, Antonia sounded weary. He was building their home and she was sending money to finish it. She would tell him that she wanted to go back so they could be together. But one afternoon last March, the cows were not lined up properly at the milking parlor.

As she tried to move them, a cow knocked her against a half wall. Other employees heard her scream, came to her aid and moved the animal away. She had set up a small altar at home for her sister, displaying her glasses, earrings and photos. She took it down because her nephew said it made him sad. The Rev. Just in the city of Manitowoc, there are at least five Mexican restaurants, two with small attached grocery stores. In spring, a bull-riding rodeo attracted hundreds of Latinos, many of them from nearby dairy farms.

Manitowoc is among the 30 counties in the U. Department of Agriculture census. Sauer said U. The story is similar in other rural Wisconsin communities. Though many Latino immigrants still keep to themselves, their influence is unmistakable. Although many return to their hometowns, some settle in Wisconsin and start a family. When President Donald Trump won the election after campaigning to crack down on illegal immigration, many Wisconsin dairy workers were nervous. Some left their jobs; some left the state or the country. But most kept working, and the threats never materialized.

He stayed. There have been more ICE arrests, but nothing approaching a massive crackdown. Pablo Cruz works on a farm with more than 1, cows in Kewaunee County. He says most of the workers there are undocumented — not only from Mexico, but more recently, from Honduras and El Salvador. Workers were nervous when Trump took office, but the farm owner told them to not pay attention, that the president was crazy.

He favors a process that would provide a path for undocumented immigrants to acquire legal status. Rosenow, the Buffalo County farmer, says the solution would start if everyone understood the necessity of immigrants. Groups like the American Dairy Coalition and the National Milk Producers Federation have pushed to get dairy farms access to foreign agricultural guest workers through a visa program that is now limited to seasonal work, such as crop harvesting.

The American Dairy Coalition also has supported replacing the guest worker program with one that would eliminate some workers protections, like the requirement to pay a prevailing wage.

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